Cale Dietrich’s first book, The Love Interest, was a wonderful surprise, a romance-thriller where every second counted. Its delicious pacing made it so I didn’t mind it was a standalone, because it satisfied in every way I was hoping for and more. I’ve read it twice. I feel we should get that out of the way first.
Taking place in run-down Florida (wherever that is), Matt Miller is in a family with a last name so infamous and affecting he has a pseudonym for school and all his friends, minus the few other kids like him in the high-class crime unit of the state. The Miller family commits arson, torture, murder, and knows exactly how to cover their tracks and prevent the police from ever daring to take them down. The Donovan family on the other hand is a different tale. They’re just as ruthless and own the other half of Florida’s underworld. Matt and his older brother Luke are under a father figure still grieving for his wife and is looking forward to the day his two sons can proudly take over the business.
But Matt just wants a normal, non-violent life, and a family who can make him feel calm about his sexuality, something he’s accepted long ago but hasn’t told a soul. He’s still not really good at hiding himself, because there are rumours that’s what he’s like. He definitely falls under some typical hints. He ends up meeting a rather buff dude in the bathroom of one of the local bars, and polite conversation turns into “You wanna get out of here, get some fresh air, do something you actually want to do?” night. Guy’s name’s Jason. He’s able to convince Matt to go for a burger and waffle-fries dinner and go for a late-night ocean swim despite shark invisibility. Really soon as they become great friends, it’s clear Jason also has a thing for boys. Twist is, his parents know but aren’t comfortable about it and Jason thinks Matt’s a lot more attractive than he perceives himself to be. They end up trying to be together, but Matt’s crime life – and Jason’s own life – is something that they can’t ignore forever.
As often as possible, when I read a book or watch a movie, because I am to review them, I do my best to separate it from my current life, because sometimes your enjoyment of something depends gravely on your mood, and that’s not really fair to the artist whose work you’re talking about. For The Friend Scheme, that was tough because a lot is happening in my life now, and most of it has been very brutal on me. But I do feel like this review is fair, so let me explain why this really pales in comparison to Dietrich’s last book.
From how the protagonists of both of his books are, I feel Cale and I would be great friends. Both his main characters are like squishy teddy bears who are not afraid to weep and overanalyze. Most male characters aren’t like that, and I rate that a positive here. But in Matt’s case, he is so sensitive and reluctant about the family business, you’d think he was adopted a few months ago into all these affairs, but he has been living this lifestyle since the start, so you’d think whatever gunfights, family deaths and arson missions he’s had to go on would give him a little bit of desensitized bulk.
And the thing is, most of this book was leaving me disappointed. For starters, the book telegraphs who a character’s last name is from as far away as possible. And when the name is revealed, the fact that there are acts Matt’s family is doing, some Matt is even a part of, should break their relationship but they don’t, feeling like a very lazy ignoring of what would happen in a more realistic scenario (I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers, and I admit sometimes that can make my sayings a little screwy).
Then when Matt gets invited to Jason’s house when it’s just him, we find out this guy Matt’s into plays baseball, a sport he can teach him, likes the same books as him, loves video games just like him…he just seems a little too perfect, like nothing could ever break them. I couldn’t buy it, especially with an elephant in the room they eventually have to tackle but before that they manage to completely be comfortable with. And the concept we find out about from an interrogation, which cements the main premise, feels too much like a mix of The Love Interest and Robert Muchamore’s Cherub books. There’s also sadly very little about the crime aspect of the family, of dodging law-abiding and law-breaking enemies.
It’s sad to think some readers might dismiss this book because of these reasons, because there’s a twist that brings an entire star to the book even though a lot of it was over. It fixes some of the glaring flaws I had and presents a brand new rough storyline involving their relationship, and the thing between Matt and Jason was already quite bumpy. And the premise, the “friend scheme”, it’s blown right upside down too. The most memorable thing about this book is how it plays along a repetitive line and then cuts that line with a super sharp axe. The ending was not quite what I was looking for, especially a section that seems to go the easy way conflict-wise, but it has an acceptance of what life is about that not a lot of young-adult thrillers go for, and the characters work really hard and lose a lot to get to where they need to be, another impressive plot device. At the end of the day, though…most of it was going through the motions among said repetitive line.
The Friend Scheme is a very, VERY cute book, and its third act is great. But its devotion to romance and mostly familiar elements with most of the side stories on the bleachers make it feel half-baked, and that’s something The Love Interest masterfully avoided.